The Reviews: Broadway’s Network & BAM’s Strange Window: The Turn of the Screw
Breaking News: Large scale live streaming is the new big thing on and off-Broadway. It’s being projected with an inventive force of nature on two far apart theatrical stages this fall, both surpassing expectations in inventiveness and style. It seems to be the new world stage order, combining live video recordings, digitally enhanced imagery, and performances. It’s a compellingly beautiful invention, utilized exceedingly well on a large-scale theatrically last July when I saw The Damned at the Park Avenue Armory. That production, exploring the symbolic warning of the 1969 Luchino Visconti film that it was based, dove head first into the violence and Shakespearian-like tragedy of the “Ritual of Evil” that spewed forth out of the greed and power of Nazi Germany. Encompassing all these visual techniques with expertise and honor, that Comédie-Française production expanded the horror into something that transcends classic visual theatre. Director Ivo van Hove (Broadway’s The Crucible) has returned, taking all that he explored from that layered creation, orchestrating another montage of visual magic once again on Broadway with Network, a new play, adapted by Lee Hall (West End’s Mother Courage) and based on the 1976 Paddy Chayefsky film.
Referred to by the National Film Registry as a “culturally, historically,.. aesthetically significant” modern film, Network, both the film and this spectacular recreation for the stage, is a satirical drama about a fictional television network, UBS, that is struggling in the rating basement who uses the mental decline and angry truth-telling of its longtime anchor, Howard Beale, played on the Broadway stage by the phenomenal Bryan Cranston (Broadway’s All the Way), working theatrical magic at every moment on stage, and off, to refocus and revitalize their dwindling audience share with his somewhat articulate rage against the machine. It’s devilishly brilliant in construct and design, formulating the studio wind up energy with a blood pumping authenticity the reverberates with a greater ease than when Ivo Van Hove utilized some of the same cosmetics with The Damned. It makes more sense here, and fits the biz of immorality with a solid exciting transparent-walled truth. The play falters a bit midway through, loosing some of its time clock count down adrenaline, but rises and rushes the audience to the edge of their seats before the signing off from their programing.
Cranston is a fearless wonder, breaking bad as the Shakespearian prophet and curmudgeon in his underwear, railing and flailing around the stage and on live television, denouncing the hypocrisies of our time (and theirs). He mesmerizes along with his cohorts, the devastatingly good Tony Goldwyn (Broadway’s Holiday), TV star handsome as ever, playing his best friend and TV producer, Max Schumacher, and the talented Tatiana Maslany (2ST’s Mary Page Marlowe, “Orphan Black“) as the rival sensationalist program developer, Diana Christensen taking over the role made famous in the film by Faye Dunaway, who wants to take the new show and harness it into something electric and entertaining. All of the talented cast and crew; scenic and lighting design by Jan Versweyveld (Ivo Hove/Broadway’s The Crucible), costumes by An D’Huys (Van Hove/Broadway’s A View From the Bridge), and sound and music by Eric Sleichim (Van Hove/BAM’s The Fountainhead), work their magic live and on-screen, focusing the manipulated fireworks and the cynical idea the “everyone knows things are bad” right into our glued faces with raw emotion and zeal, unpredictable and strikingly urgent.
Morality is at stake here, and the holding of ones own breath as we watch the meltdown projected large on the back stage screen casts a disturbing light on corruption and trickery that is as topical in the here and now as it was back then. It struts and sputters, sometimes like a ghost and other moments with a clarity of a professional suit telling us things from a warped perspective. There’s a biting commentary on numerous fronts, the fake news of Fox television and the sensationalism of our modern broadcast networks, edited in with real life trapped rage and helplessness. The out front dramatics beamed in from outside slice us a bit too far from the emotional core, distracting us from the true cause, but as a piece of modern theater, Ivo Van Hove, and the brilliant craftmanship of video designer Tal Yarden (Broadway’s The Waverly Gallery, Indecent) rises magnificently center stage like a triumphant King Lear (or King Kong for that matter), placing this adaptation and social commentary into a vigorous and fiery forefront that can not be denied. It’s a Network filled to the brim of clever and artful madness that we don’t want to look away from or change the channel.
Meanwhile, over in Brooklyn, The Builders Association, a New York based performance and media company, dives head first into a similar pool of creative thought and visual design, giving BAM its own adaptation, with Henry James’ classic ghost novella, The Turn of the Screw. Directed with a fascinating but not as successful dynamic by Marianne Weems (artistic director and co-founder of The Builders Assoc.), playwright and dramaturg James Gibbs (Builders/BAM’s House/Divided) layers a modern dual twist of Ted Talk-like psychology and auditory deconstruction onto the central core of ambiguity, truth-telling, and the interrogation of lies. Utilizing some very similar techniques as The Damned and Network, with numerous layerings of quasi-realistic gothic imagery, one on top of another, the very fine work by scenic designer Neal Wilkinson (Builders’ Continuous City), video design by Austin Switser (TFANA’s He Brought Her Heart Back…), and lighting by Jennifer Tipton (Old Globe’s Uncle Vanya) , adds a moody and misty air to the diabolical story of a gothic haunting. It’s captivating but distracting, modulating in between moments of complete creepy clarity and chilling investment, with the stark modern flair of lectures and intellectual investigation that mean very little in the end, and only tend to pull us out. The idea of present day “gig economy” and 20th/21st Century psychology around privilege, class, and facial mood recognition sound like a compelling thesis ripe for exploration, but rather than drive us into the madness of the swampy waters where ghosts may or may not reside, it stalls the gothic narrative in stark modern terms, invading the story rather than “teasing out what it means to tell the truth and to lie, both to ourselves and to others” (Weems/Gibbs).
The formidable actress, Lucia Roderique (Lincoln Center’s Sheila’s Day) dons the garb well in this multi-dimensional universe, floating between stations in status and time. She begins with a clear and curious interview in modern times with a pair of uninterested iPad-obsessed relatives, played with tight audaciousness by Hannah Heller (HERE’s The Reception) as the Aunt, and Sean Donovan (NYLA’s Age & Beauty Part 2) and the Uncle, for the job of super Nanny before she floats back to the century’s past role of Governess for two young children. Donning a longer skirt and high collared blouse, rolling down her sleeves to a more appropriate length, she inhabits the role with expertise; vocalizing period perfectly into a staged microphone, is hypnotically perplexed when projected onto the large screen, and transverses the time and space continuum center stage with purpose and dread to confront the children. Playing with oddly stage-managed and directed focus in a confined sand-box like square on the other side of the wide Harvey Theater stage, the two proper and parentless children, Miles, played by Joe Solava (Station theater’s Fun Home), and Flora, played by Finley Tarr, possess a removed air of 19th Century elitism that seem to entrance and frighten the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, played a bit too oddly comical by Moe Angelos (one of The Five Lesbian Brothers). There is something mysteriously off-balance in this remote manor, far off the carriage road steeped in fog and moonlight. The ghostly apparitions are dynamic and perplexing, and even though that real or imagined landscape plays with our perception in the candle lit enhanced smoky past life, it flickers in and out, rarely keeping us enthralled long enough to keep our nerves tingling.
The brother and sister’s voices are not their own, floating in from across the stage, alienating the children, by design, from their piped in dialogue supplied by Heller and Donovan (who also run around back stage giving ghostly apparitions their form and shape). It’s disconcerting, this separation, much like the momentary delay between sound and image that consistently disconnects us to the eerie structure and ghostly hoverings that is attempting to creep under our skin. The purpose probably is fitting, enlisting the gothic idea of ghostly possession, but coupled with the non-sync’d voices and video image of the housekeeper, it doesn’t give off the intended nightmarish quality. The Governess is said to occupy “an unstable intersection of class, gender, economy and power, employed in a household in which she was never quite welcome or understood to belong, and given impossible tasks without the authority to accomplish them” (Weems/Gibbs), and wrapped in the moodiness of gothic structure and misty visuals, the modern world keeps jumping in and tripping up the descent. Weems tries hard to work her visceral magic with the beautiful imagery and the modern scientific dissection, but the Strange Window distracts more than enthralls, failing to Turn the Screw too tightly, leaving us put off by the lecture and wondering what the purpose of all that psycho-babble is about.
With all this inventiveness that is seeping onto the stages in New York, the visuals are lighting up the dramatics with force and style. Weems’ Strange Window: The Turning of the Screw fails to encompass the mood solidly throughout dropping the beautiful ghostly mood with modern hands, while Ivo Van Hove and Bryan Cranston find their way quite triumphantly and magically to the end of Network, pulling a rabbit out of their hat in the final moments. It showcases Van Hove’s brilliance in incorporating technical style and old-fashioned solid story-telling while playing sincere treatment to a classic film. The truth has relevancy, they both are attempting to telegraph, invading the public domain and haunting our reality of responsibility and spring-boarding understanding with knowledge in what it means to deliver the story truthfully. Regardless of the rating. There’s morality and decency that is needed, with a solid, and inventive, sense of purpose in its telling.